Dead and Born and Grown
Kellie M. Beck
The wind was cold. The kind of cold that settles into your bones and chills you from the inside. The kind of cold where your blood slows down and your molecules themselves are shivering, rubbing up against each other for warmth. It blew against the swaying yellow wheat of the field, the cacophony of it sweeping around a thin, pale teenager, and for a moment, it appeared as if he was at the center of the world.
He could hear Ellie yelling for him. The wind managed to take her voice and sweep it into the rest of the sound around him, a melody floating above the orchestra. He didn’t like when she tried to find him out here. He didn’t ask that much from her on these days; two hours, alone. That was the only thing he had asked for once the baby had been born, and he could have asked for a lot of things. Rent, for one. But all he had asked for was solitude.
It had looked like it was supposed to rain for days. Every morning, Dalton had called his mother on the landline telephone at the house and asked if her joints hurt. It had been a joke between them for some time, but his asking had become desperate over the past week. The wheat had grown stiff, and a cloud of dust had seemed to settle over the earth, floating just above the eyeline.
Ellie called out to him again, her voice shrill and piercing on the heavy air. The earth pressed up against his back, Dalton liked to imagine the world was cradling him. He was waiting for the church bells to toll five. Five o’clock meant dinner time. Dinner time meant opening a can of peas for baby Shelly, boiling bones for stock for his and Ellie’s dinner. Five o’clock meant back to the reality and mundanity that Dalton had once despised. Now he just felt nothing. He thought himself too young to feel nothing. But he had grown up too young, and growing up meant the welcome of nothingness, for the sake of marking the days.
Ellie did not love him. But that was alright – he did not love Ellie. The only love Dalton knew was his mother’s, and a mother’s love for her grown child is like stale crackers; no one’s first choice, but enough to satisfy one’s hunger.
The first church bell rang out across the field. He could hear in the distance baby Shelly start to cry. Ellie’s cries carried on the wind directly into his ears. He stood to go back inside.
Shelly’s dresses needed mending. She did not like that her mother gave her dresses to wear. Her knees got skinned and bloody too quickly, and Dalton would no longer give her band-aids to cover them. He said it was a waste. The girls at school spit on her and called her “hick”, and the ragged ends of her dresses only reinforced their taunts. She had tried asking Dalton what a hick was, and he had responded with “redneck”, but she did not know what that was either.
“Where are you going?” she would ask Dalton every day at three o’clock, but he would only show her his back and close the door softly on his way out. She had tried to follow him many times, but he was stealthy and would disappear among the towering wheat every time, out of sight. Her mother refused to explain his daily disappearance to her. She said it wasn’t interesting or important. Shelly disagreed, but neither Ellie or Dalton cared what Shelly thought of things.
Shelly assumed Dalton was her father and Ellie did not correct her. Never mind that Dalton was only fourteen when she had been born. Ellie did not know who Shelly’s father was. Her arms were covered in tracks from strangers’ needles; Shelly was just another mark on her from a man she did not know. Once she’d had Shelly, Ellie had stopped using. Once a month, Dalton and her would roll two cigarettes and smoke them in the yard out back, and they would talk into the early morning about the life they got as opposed to the ones they wanted until the cigarettes were nubs, squashed underneath their feet. This was the extent of kinship between the two, as Ellie did not like cigarettes or the outdoors enough for this to be a more regular occurrence.
“When will it rain?” Shelly would ask Dalton every day at 5 o’clock, when he returned to the house. Despite his consistent lack of an answer, Shelly did not tire of asking him. She didn’t know why, but Dalton was her hero. She knew very little about him. She knew they lived in the house he had been born in, and she knew that his mother had died the year Shelly started school. She did not know where the meagre amounts of money he had to support Ellie and Shelly came from, and she had been told not to ask, so she didn’t. She didn’t have a single memory where Dalton was smiling. If Dalton had ever smiled at her, she wouldn’t have known what to do.
It was not much of a childhood, but rather an imitation. Every summer there was drought, every winter there was wind, and time went on for the three lonely soldiers on the house at the top of the hill with the wheat field below.
Shelly had hoped to grow up and be beautiful, but she had not. Her knees were knobby and her skin was dry and coated in freckles. By sixteen, she was gawky, and she stuck out with herred hair that matched her sunburnt cheeks. Shelly had found out about her own appearance later than the girls at school and that did not make things easy going. Boys at school found it amusing to grope Shelly in the hallway, only to point out that there was nothing of her chest to grope. She did not like the boys at school, and if given the chance, she would’ve run them over in Dalton’s pickup truck.
Dalton was turning thirty. Shelly hoped to soften him with pie and had kicked around some kids on the road to school for their lunch money. Ellie had made her a pie once and had promised to help Shelly in exchange for Shelly “staying out of her hair” the following day. Shelly felt that most days she was nowhere near Ellie’s hair, but she agreed anyway. The five pounds would be enough to buy apples and sugar from Mr. Davis in town, with enough left over to give Ellie. Ellie would then tuck the sum into a pillowcase which would disappear into an undisclosed location within the house that Shelly was “too young” to know about. Shelly prided herself on such contributions to the household.
Dalton’s birthday was in the middle of August. When he turned thirty, it had not rained in sixty-seven days. He felt no reason to celebrate birthdays. He felt the same as he always had. But Shelly was very excited for his birthday, and he saw no reason in squashing another person’s joy, as foolish as he may have deemed it.
When Shelly returned from Mr. Davis’ house, with apples and sugar in hand, Ellie was not home. While Shelly was bitter that Ellie had failed to fulfil her promise, she was confident she could figure out how to make a pie. There were cookbooks in the house somewhere.
When the pie came out of the oven, Ellie was still not home. At the five o’clock bells, when Dalton came into the house for the night, he asked Shelly where Ellie was, but she did not have an answer. He thanked her for the pie and went to the table to roll himself a cigarette.
“Do you want one?” he asked across the kitchen. Shelly was unsure he was talking to her, even though she was the only other person in the room. She cut two pieces of pie and brought them to the table before she answered that yes, she did. She had smoked cigarettes in the girl’s bathroom at school in an attempt to befriend the other girls who did the same. Dalton rolled cigarettes with great dexterity, his fingers moving swiftly and delicately until he sealed the rolling paper shut with a little spit. He grabbed the box of matches from under the sink and went out the back door. Shelly hurried behind him, abandoning the pieces of pie on the kitchen table.
“Where d’you think Ellie went?” Shelly asked as he wordlessly handed her a lit cigarette. Shelly had stopped calling Ellie any form of pet name related to motherhood a few years back, because Ellie said pushing a bowling ball out of your nether-regions didn’t make you a mother. Dalton lit his own cigarette and inhaled deeply. He rarely answered questions Shelly asked him. He let out a stream of smoke from his nostrils and looked at Shelly with steely eyes. Shelly had begun to count the pock marks and wrinkles that were scattered haphazardly across Dalton’s face when he responded.
“I don’t know, kid, but I’d bet she’s not coming back for you.”
Most of the kids Shelly went to school with didn’t go to college. A good third of them did not even finishschool. The girls got married and the boys inherited things from their fathers to do with their lives. At twenty-four, Shelly knew Dalton was not her father, and Ellie had not reappeared in the eight years since she had left. Dalton had not left. The house was split among them, and things were not unpleasant. They were not pleasant either, but rather, unchanging, and that seemed to trick them into thinking times were good. Shelly cooked things and got water in the pick-up truck, and Dalton bought food when he could and sold things when they rarely grew.
Shelly had grown a reputation in town that Dalton disliked. He had never voiced this to her directly, but when she disappeared in the early hours of the morning and returned with money in hand, he would furrow his eyebrows in a disapproving way and comment on the time. While Shelly did not particularly like the sticky, callused hands of the men she met in cars and motels, she did like the cigarettes, bread and milk their money bought. There was a satisfying irony in taking money from the same men who had once thrown rocks at her; they had been right when they said she was ugly, but they’d still rather pay her then fuck their own wives.
Days were not momentous, but rather a way to keep time in the nothingness. The day began when the single, sickly rooster crowed, and ended when the sun went down. The day was half over when Dalton came in at 5 o’clock for dinner. They went about their routines like the sun went over the sky and years managed to go by in that time.
Shelly had not asked Dalton where he went at 3 o’clock each day since she was a gawky teenager, but Dalton went nonetheless to the middle of the dry, dying wheat field every day and laid down looking up at the sky, wondering if he would die in this very field one day. It is unknown what changed on a hot day in July, when shortly before Dalton’s thirty-eighth birthday, Shelly fulfilled her childhood dream, and without a breath of hesitation, slipped out the back door to follow him.
He wound through the field, taking a lazy, meandering route as opposed to a straight shot that made it difficult for Shelly to follow quietly. She kept her distance behind him and tried to rely on the noise of the wheat as opposed to his figure up ahead of her. They walked like this, one following the other, for a good twenty minutes, before the brushing of wheat stopped and Dalton laid down in his usual spot. An outline of his body was now permanently imprinted in the field and settling in it every day felt as close to a home as Dalton knew. But he did not feel the same peace settle over him on this July day because within minutes of lying down, Shelly appeared over him, blocking the sun from beating down on him.
“What are you doing here?” Dalton asked. He did not like to be interrupted in his solitude. She did not respond to his question, but rather, stared at him with the kind of intensity that burns up the ears and cheeks. Dalton had always attempted to receive Shelly’s attention with a dignity that he found important to uphold. More than once he had heard whispers as he carried drums of water from the well back to the truck, whispers that pierced his chest like arrowheads because he knew there was truth in the rumours that circulated amongst the town. What he did not understand was the quiet pride Shelly wore when someone spat at her and called her “whore”. It made Dalton nervous, as if bubbling underneath the surface of her reddened skin was a heat that no one would be able to put out if released. He blinked, remaining silent, until Shelly turned around and disappeared back into the field, the soft thrush of the wheat in her wake making him pray that she would not set the entire field aflame.
The following day Shelly was putting on her jacket as Dalton headed for the door.
“I’m coming with you,” she told him plainly. Dalton shook his head no. He was not looking for company.
“I like to go alone.”
He opened the back door with its distinctive creak and started out. He knew Shelly was following him because the back door did not slam shut right away. He broke out into a run, tearing into the field with blind fervour. He had no idea where he was going. He knew his spot would be waiting for him and he resented Shelly for forcing him to abandon it. He had lain in that spot for over twenty years and he had never missed a day.
Shelly was faster than he had anticipated. Dalton could hear her footfalls and the hissing wheat while she remained in hot pursuit of him. She was younger than him and her youth was in her favour. His lungs heaved and he felt as if he was only breathing in dust. Every year of drought, every particle of failure and death seemed to cling to the membranes of his organs, until he thought he might be blown into the wind and fail to exist at all. He had a choice to make.
Shelly did not expect Dalton to stop and turn around the way he then did. Her body slammed into his and took them both down. The wheat broke their fall to an extent, but the resounding thud shook both their bones. Shelly was inches away from the lines in Dalton’s face. He was almost forty now. Not her father, not her friend, but the only person she could say she really knew. She felt something barbarous within her rise to the surface. His hands pushed at her shoulders, trying to escape from underneath her. She took his worn hand, twice the size of hers, from her left shoulder and held it in front of her. It was surprisingly clean. Not a single speck of dirt underneath his fingernails. His hand went limp; he did not fight back, so she took his hand and placed it on her neck, because she wanted to know what it felt like for someone else to have a say over what happened to her.
Shelly was nowhere to be seen the next day. He had feared what the confrontation with her might look like come that morning. He failed to understand her. He always had, and he desperately wished that she would resign herself to the same numbness he had. At 3 o’clock, he headed out, feeling he owed something to his spot in the field that had gone its first twenty four hours without him. He took his time going through the field, because he hadn’t gotten the chance to enjoy his trek the day before. His hands were sweaty. He kept remembering the feeling of Shelly’s jugular underneath his palm, her blood rushing underneath her toughened, freckled skin.
When he arrived at the centre of the field, Shelly was laying down in his spot. Her lithe, thin body did not fill the crater the way he did.
“It looks as if it may rain.” she said. He snorted. Shelly stood and gestured to the spot in the wheat for him to lie down. Dalton pretended not to hesitate and did so. Shelly fought through the surrounding wheat, pushing and breaking it so she could lie down beside him. It was not easy. He averted his eyes. Dalton did not like watching her struggle.
A rumble of thunder came from the east. The sound felt foreign and frightening to Dalton. Shelly turned her pink face to his, her red hair snarled in the wheat it lay in. They lay there, frozen, eyes watching each other carefully. How badly she wished she would do something.
“Why do you come here?” Shelly asked Dalton, once more.
Another smack of thunder, and from the sky, thousands, millions of droplets of rain began to fall. It was as if, for a moment, these two people could be the centre of the world.